Hey, First-Year Teacher, You're Not Alone in This

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April 21, 2020

Dear First-Year Teacher,
Lately I’ve been seeing some incredibly thoughtful and beautiful letters and examples of outreach to kindergarteners, fifth-graders and high school seniors, and support for teachers in general (this last one has the grace we all need). Every time I see one come across my news feeds, I read them, share them and appreciate the love and care that went into each one.
But lately I’ve been thinking about you, first-year educator. What must you be feeling and thinking right now? I mean, in our wildest nightmares we couldn’t have imagined this. Everyone says your first year is hard, but come ON. This is excessive. Teaching actual live children right in front of you is challenging enough, and now you have to figure out how to teach them from your apartment/house? And on top of that, you’re trying to connect with kids who may have no access to technology, are feeling lost or confused or angry, or maybe just don’t feel like connecting with their teachers? It’s a lot to ask for us veterans, let alone for you, just starting out on this path.
So I found myself thinking back to my first year as a 23-year-old high school teacher in 1998.
I taught world history and Language Arts 10, and I remember constantly vacillating between feeling like I sort of had it under control and feeling like a complete idiot who knew nothing. I cried a LOT that year. In my car, in my apartment, in my tiny little basement/storage room hunched over my Apple Macintosh desktop computer late into the night … ahh, the memories. I was also lucky enough to be hired in at around the same time as more than a dozen other new (or new-ish) teachers, and they quickly became my people. In fact, I married one and still consider two others among my very best friends, but I digress. (That's us in the photo above.)
On April 20, 1999, I had probably spent the day doing my best to teach my kids (while also leaning on those friends of mine for advice and laughs) when we heard about the mass shooting in Colorado at Columbine High School. Our country had never experienced anything like this before, and as a very young teacher, I had no idea what to do, or what to say to my students. How could this have happened? Could it happen here? So I did what I had learned to do, and I went to my people. We talked to each other about how to talk to the kids. We leaned on each other, and we made it through that together.
A month later, one of those incredible people, my co-worker and friend — a talented, brilliant, generous, funny, young teacher — was killed in a tragic car crash. And again, that little band of brand new baby teachers is what got me through those months of shock and loss and grief. They steadied me and had strength when I did not, and I returned the favor for them. We still miss her.
I want to tell you that what you are feeling right now — what we are all feeling — is grief. We have LOST things. We have lost opportunities to teach, to help our kids, to attend their graduations, go on their field trips and see them accomplish their goals — and those are just all of the work-related things. Many are also struggling with the loss of friends or family.
And YOU have lost a lot, as well. All of the learning and growing you’ve done this year was just starting to pay off. Spring is when you start to feel like maybe you’ve got this. You know your students, you’ve found your people, and you can even fix the copy machine. All of that counts as loss, and it is OK to grieve it. Loss is loss, and the most important loss is always your own. Brené Brown talks about this idea of “comparative suffering,” which is the idea that one loss is worse than another, so those of us suffering a “lesser” loss should stay quiet and just be thankful we aren’t suffering more. Don’t do this to yourself. You have lost out on a lot, and I, for one, am deeply sorry for that loss.
I hope, at the very least, you have taken some small measure of comfort from finding yourself in the same boat as people who have been teaching for years. Very few of us know what to do or how to do it in this new remote learning world, so we really are right here with you, fumbling through awkward Zoom meetings, calming parent and student fears, managing emails and assembling packets.
But more than that, I hope that you — like I did all those years ago, and still do today — have leaned on each other during this time. I encourage you to stay connected to other new teachers — lift each other up and make each other laugh. Ask questions when things don’t seem right and reassure each other when someone is struggling. Acknowledge each other’s grief and loss and sadness and confusion through this. Borrow ideas from people you trust and try your very hardest not to compare yourself to others.
You may feel alone sometimes, but my hope for you is that you find solidarity and comfort in knowing there is a community of educators out there feeling what you’re feeling. Because in many ways, as the 2019 Montana Teacher of the Year points out, we are all first-year teachers now.

About Cara Lougheed: I am a white, straight, cis-gender, non-disabled, married, middle class woman with 21 years of classroom experience in a suburban public school district in occupied Anishinabewaki land. My pronouns are she/her/hers. Anything you find here is based on my perspective, but I acknowledge that perspective has been limited by my experiences, choices, biases (implicit & not), and the unearned privilege I have had in my life. I hope to learn and grow from my colleagues across the state in the coming months as your Michigan Teacher of the Year.
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